When people my age hear the name “Don Johnson,” they think of Miami Vice.
That’s not the Don Johnson you want to play blackjack like.
No, the Don Johnson I’m writing about here is a professional gambler who won over $15 million from several Atlantic City casinos over the course of six months in 2011.
He beat the Tropicana for $6 million, the Borgata for $5 million, and Caesars for $4 million.
You might not be able to win $15 million playing blackjack like he does. After all, he’s a rich, retired corporate executive with a larger bankroll than most of us.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make money playing blackjack like Don Johnson.
This post explains how.
Don Johnson wasn’t always a high roller, but he’s always been a gambler. He started out playing blackjack for $25 per hand in 1996.
And he doesn’t limit his gambling activities to blackjack, either.
In fact, blackjack isn’t even his main activity. In his day job, Don Johnson is the CEO of a company called Heritage Development, LLC, which creates computer programs for horse racing wagers. These are called “computer-assisted wagering programs,” and the idea is that they’ll help gamblers find profitable opportunities at the racetrack.
These programs are also called “quants,” and they enable gamblers to bet huge amounts of cash on a single horse with a degree of confidence you wouldn’t have just following your gut. These computer programs look at over 100 distinct criteria before predicting how a horse race will come out.
These computer programs also get fast data about the size of the overall pari-mutuel betting pool. As a result, the bets suggested by these quants are the ones with the highest EV (expected value) at the time.
This part’s important, too, because of the nature of pari-mutuel betting. The payoff on your bet at a horse track changes based on the overall prize pool. This means you need to strike a balance between wagering more and winning less per unit and wagering less but winning more per unit.
The average horse bettor MIGHT be able to pick winners as well as one of these computer programs, but there’s no way he could manage the bet sizing accuracy that these computer programs do.
What’s the point to all this?
I want you to understand that you can take lessons from Don Johnson’s gambling career and apply it to your own gambling career immediately, even if you don’t have a huge bankroll.
If you only have enough money to afford the $5 blackjack tables, that’s okay. Get started anyway.
If you’re interested enough in some kind of gambling that can be profitable, try to get involved in it on a full-time basis.
Those are the two big takeaways from this “start where you are” post.
By the way, the number of gambling activities where you can get a positive expectation is strictly limited. They include:
You might be able to get an edge on any other kind of game if the casino makes a mistake with a promotion or something like that, but those are special situations.
You can’t count on them.
Most people who win at blackjack count cards and work in teams with other advantage gamblers. Those aren’t bad strategies.
Counting cards is easier than you probably think. You don’t have to memorize which cards have already been played. And you don’t have to predict which cards are about to be played, either.
Instead, you just track the ratio of high cards to low cards still in the deck. For these purposes, a high card is usually considered a 10 or an ace. Low cards are usually considered 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, or 6s.
The premise behind counting cards is that your expected value increases when the deck has more aces and 10s in it than usual. This happens randomly because the decks get shuffled.
When the probability of getting 10s and aces increases, the expected value of your bet increases, too. That’s because a “blackjack” — a two-card hand worth 21 points — pays off 3 to 2 instead of even money.
All you have to do is keep a silent running count in your head, adding 1 every time a low card is dealt and subtracting 1 every time a high card is dealt.
When the count is positive, you bet more. The higher the count, the more you bet.
When the count is 0 or negative, you bet less. The lower the count, the less you bet.
Most people who read that assume that counting cards is super-easy. And while the methodology and reasoning behind it IS easier to understand than most people think, putting this knowledge into practice is another matter.
Casinos don’t allow you to count cards. If they suspect you of it, they’ll ask you to stop playing their blackjack games. Or they’ll ban you from the casino entirely.
So card counting IS hard, but not for the reasons you think.
Working in teams makes it harder for the casino to detect what you’re up to when you’re counting cards. But you have to deal with splitting your profits with other gamblers.
The brilliant thing about Don Johnson is that he figured out how to win at blackjack WITHOUT counting cards and WITHOUT working with a team of other advantage gamblers.
The point I’m trying to make is simple.
Just because every page you read about how to do something suggests doing one thing, that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own way of achieving the same goal.
According to the reports I’ve read, Don Johnson didn’t do anything to make himself look like a high roller. In fact, he did just the opposite.
He eschews fancy suits and jewelry. Instead, he wears casual clothes you might see the average sports fan in. I’m talking about jeans, sweatshirts, and t-shirts. He’s the kind of guy you might see wearing a ballcap.
You don’t have to try to look the part of a high roller or professional gambler to make a killing at the tables.
I’d venture that fewer than 1 in 10,000 gamblers ever make $15 million in their entire career gambling.
If Johnson can do it in jeans and a sweatshirt, you can too.
Only in the strangest of minds could card counting be considered cheating. After all, counting cards is just thinking about the game you’re playing. That said, plenty of casino executives and novice gamblers operate under the mistaken impression that card counting is the equivalent of cheating.
Of course, there are legitimate ways to cheat at blackjack, too. You could mark the cards. You could change the size of your bets after the outcome has already been determined. You could collude with the dealer.
None of these tactics are necessary or even desirable.
Johnson didn’t need to resort to them, and neither do you.
You CAN gamble like Don Johnson AND count cards at the same time, but you shouldn’t cheat. The risk-reward ratio just isn’t there.
In Nevada, it’s a FELONY to cheat at a casino game.
Casino surveillance records every hand played on a video camera from above — the eye in the sky. When you’re talking about a player who’s betting $100,000 a hand and winning millions of dollars, you can bet that the casino is going to watch that video closely to make sure there was no cheating going on.
Don Johnson doesn’t have to cheat, and neither do you.
Don Johnson doesn’t reveal how much he wins or loses exactly, and he also doesn’t reveal his personal net worth.
But he does point out that he has a bankroll that enables him to withstand the swings of the game without going broke.
How much money is that?
Johnson doesn’t say, but you can find plenty of card counting sites with advice for how much money you need compared to the size of your average bet. They all suggest more or less the same thing, and it’s based on your risk tolerance.
You need between 200 and 1000 betting units.
If you’re betting an average of $100,000 per hand, you’re looking at needing a bankroll of at least $20 million. Your risk of ruin with a bankroll that small is higher than it would be if you were on the other end of that spectrum, which would be a bankroll of $100 million.
The thing to remember about your gambling bankroll, too, is that it’s money you’ve set aside specifically for gambling. It’s not money you need for a mortgage payment or something else.
Even if you’re starting out as a $25 per hand blackjack player, you should make sure you’re sufficiently bankrolled. This means a minimum of $5,000, although $25,000 is better.
That will at least get you started down the road of playing blackjack like Don Johnson.
One of the secrets of Don Johnson’s blackjack success was his insistence on only playing blackjack games with the best rules for the player. The basics of blackjack are the same from table to table, but there are subtleties in the game conditions that affect the house edge.
For example, the number of decks makes a difference. Most modern blackjack games are dealt from eight decks, but the fewer decks you’re playing against, the better. Johnson negotiated a six-deck shoe that was shuffled by hand — not by machine.
But Johnson negotiated four splits per hand. This comes in handy when you get a pair of aces.
During a speech at the 2013 World Game Protection Conference, Johnson said that his negotiated rules lowered the house edge to 0.263%.
As I mentioned already, he played from a six-deck game and was allowed to split up to four hands per turn. He was also allowed to double down on any hand he wanted to — even if he’d split — and it didn’t matter what the total was.
The dealer had to stand on a soft 17 rather than hit, which is a big difference in expectation. And, of course, he insisted on a 3 to 2 payout for a natural (6 to 5 blackjack is for chumps).
One aspect of Don Johnson’s play that might be hard for an average gambler to pull off is his rebate on losses. It’s common for high rollers to be able to negotiate a deal where they get a big rebate on their losses if they’ve lost enough.
Don Johnson was able to get a rebate of 20% on any losses if he lost $500,000 or more. Usually, casinos require you to play for at least 12 hours to be eligible for this, but Johnson had no minimum play requirement.
Also, his losses reset every day for purposes of his rebates.
With a rebate deal like this, it would be hard to lose money in the long run. Here’s one way you could do it.
You could set a win goal and a stop loss limit of $500,000 and quit when you hit either number.
On the days where you won $500,000, which would be almost half of them, you’d get to keep your winnings.
On the days where you lost $500,000, which would be a little over half of them, you’d get $100,000 of your losses back.
On top of that, the maximum wager at these tables was $100,000. Johnson could achieve his win goal or his stop loss limit in less than an hour, easy. In fact, he could probably do it in 15 minutes, depending on whether he got on a winning or losing streak.
Of course, you’re not going to win half the time and lose half the time. The house does have an edge here, even if it’s a small one.
But it’s so small that you’re basically looking at a 50/50 shot every day.
And if you have a 50% shot of winning $500,000 versus a 50% shot of losing $400,000, it’s not hard to see why you’re expected to win $50,000 per day on average.
Of course, he didn’t have to limit himself to $500,000 a day. He could win or lose around $2.5 million per day and still see a significant profit. His edge over the house was small as a result of these rebates, but a small edge over the casino — when you’re dealing with $100,000 bets — can result in some massive profits.
Let’s assume that his edge over the house, after accounting for the rebates, was only 0.25%.
If he bet $100,000 per hand, his expected win per hand was $250. If he played 100 hands per hour, his expected win per hour was $25,000. If he played for four or five hours a day, his expected win per day was $100,000+.
Johnson didn’t just negotiate a heckuva good game with good rules and a great loss rebate.
He also negotiated an amount of money just for showing up.
The casinos paid him a flat amount of $50,000 just for showing up each day.
In online casino terms, it was like getting a signup bonus every day just for buying in.
Taking advantage of loss rebates to get an edge over the casino is the kind of advantage play that most of us would like to get involved in, but we can’t afford it.
But there’s a way around this.
Advantage gamblers often work in teams. Some of these teams have enough money that they can fund a “high roller” to take advantage of these loss rebates.
This advantage technique is one of the least talked about in the business, but it’s also theoretically one of the most profitable.
If you can get involved with one of these teams, you could partake of this bounty, too. You could be a smaller-scale Don Johnson.
You need scouts to find such opportunities, gamblers with acting skills to play the high rollers, and a team with a large enough bankroll to afford the play.
Can anyone play blackjack like Don Johnson?
To some extent, yes, but for the most part, no. He has advantages based on his bankroll that are unavailable to most of us.
But there are lessons you can take away from Don Johnson’s game. This post includes nine of them.
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